By Scott Nygaard
The Decemberists, the Portland, Oregon, indie-rock band led by acoustic guitarist/singer/songwriter Colin Meloy, spent the first few years of its life making records for the über-hip Olympia, Washington, indie label Kill Rock Stars and becoming known as much for its vintage stage attire as for its Fairport Convention-meets-the-Smiths sound. The band primarily exists to render Meloy’s literate and lurid story songs, which feature archaic and intricate language and draw as much from English folk-rock as from ’80s college-rock icons like Robyn Hitchcock and REM. For example, the band’s 2003 album Her Majesty begins with a sea shanty (“We set to sail on a packet full of spice, rum, and tea-leaves”) and courses through other faux-folk songs like “The Chimbley Sweep” (“I am a chimbley, a chimbley sweep / No bed to lie, no shoes to hold my feet”) and “The Soldiering Life.” But “Red Right Ankle” owes much to Hitchcock’s skewed sensibility (“This is the story of your red right ankle / And how it came to meet your leg”) while “The Bachelor and the Bride” references avant-garde artist Marcel Duchamp. Around Meloy’s reedy tenor and droning acoustic guitar swirls a crack yet restrained band of electric guitar (Chris Funk), keyboards (Jenny Conlee), bass (Natt Query), and drums (initially Rachel Blumberg, now John Moen), with occasional sprinklings of pedal steel, cello, accordion, glockenspiel, and “blood-curdling screams.”
With last year’s (2006) move to major-label status (Capitol Records), the band released its fourth full-length album, The Crane Wife, a minor pop masterpiece that is both more ambitious and more accessible and appeared on many year-end Top Ten lists. Co-produced by Chris Wall (guitarist/producer for Death Cab for Cutie) and Tucker Martine (drummer/producer for Laura Veirs), The Crane Wife is the first Decemberists album to feature the band’s supporting members in full flower, but Meloy’s acoustic guitar and songwriting still dominate.
Meloy is more interested in narrative storytelling than personal revelation and his fondness for tenebrous subjects (war, rape, and murder figure prominently) not only mirrors contemporary culture’s obsession with the dark side (todays movies, TV, fiction, and video games are certainly awash in gore and mayhem, if pop songwriting is not) but traditional folksongs and folktales as well, making his personal oeuvre more universal and timely than many songs based on romantic relationships or tortured emotional scenarios. “The Landlord’s Daughter” (in which a young lass is waylaid by a scoundrel on a riverbank) could be a traditional folksong, while “Yankee Bayonet” (a duet with Laura Veirs) is a poignant conversation between a soldier beyond the grave and his (living) pregnant lover. Though Meloy places it during the Civil War, its subject is all too contemporary, potentially more affecting and less polarizing than, say, a song from the viewpoint of a dying soldier lying in an Iraqi alleyway.
The Crane Wife also contains two sprawling suites: one three-song narrative based on a children’s story and craftily carved up so that the catchy “The Crane Wife 3” opens the album, but it’s not until the penultimate track that we hear the 11-minute “The Crane Wife 1 & 2.” The other three-song mini-suite, “The Island,” with its elaborate instrumental transitions, menacing electric guitar, string sections, and rippling Moog figures, will remind listeners of ’70s prog-rock bands like Jethro Tull, though Meloy’s bouyant melodies keep the epic from becoming pretentious or cloying.
I talked with Meloy recently about the development of his songwriting, how ’80s rock guitar heroes and English folk guitarists have influenced his own playing, and how the other members of the Decemberists contribute to the overall sound of his songs.
Many of your songs are narrative-based story songs. Have you always written that way, or was there a period where you wrote more personal songs?
MELOY When I started out, like anyone, I was taking a lot from modern pop music and looking inward, but I was also listening to people like Robyn Hitchcock and Camper Van Beethoven, who had a real strong absurdist sense. So to me songwriting didn’t necessarily mean trying to convey your feelings or make sense of one’s emotions. It was also an opportunity to tell a story or paint something in kind of an ironic or funny light. I was also listening to the Smiths a lot. Morrissey’s lyrics have really interesting uses of irony and tension between tones, self-reflexive ironies and self-deprecation—just more complex ways of expressing yourself and telling a story.
You studied creative writing in college. What kinds of things were you writing besides songs?
MELOY Well, I’d written stories and plays and things since I was a little kid. So that was definitely happening all through the time I was starting to pick up the guitar.
At what point did songs become your main creative mode of expression?
MELOY It was always a peripheral thing up until the point that I graduated from college, and then it became more of a focal point. I moved to Portland in 1999 and started playing around town, and it just developed from there. I was playing a lot of open mics in coffee shops and bars, playing to really small audiences. Having such a lack of an audience gave me the opportunity to really play around with form. I didn’t feel like I had anything to lose. I certainly wasn’t going to be alienating any fans at that point. It really felt like I had a blank slate. The opportunity was there to try to create something that was exciting to me, and I felt like if what I was doing felt exciting to me, it would carry me through those times when I didn’t have much of an audience.
Your audience has gotten much bigger and the band is touring a lot now. When do you find time to write? Or can you write on the road?
MELOY No, I’ve never been able to write on tour. It’s enough to have to think about lobby calls and when and where you’re going to eat and how you’re going to fit soundcheck in. My down time is very valuable to me on tour. It’s an opportunity to be quiet and read, or something like that, rather than try to work on a song. I prefer to do that at home. We tour a lot of the year and then take sizable chunks of time off, so that’s when I can work on songs.
When you’re at home and in writing mode, do you have any set routines where you try to write at a certain time of day?
MELOY When I was working on the songs for The Crane Wife I definitely did, because I had a limited amount of time. I’d only finished a couple of songs by the time we were booking studio time, so that was kind of terrifying. But I knew that it was going to be that way. Our touring schedule didn’t allow me that much time. I had two months to work on all the material. Chris Walla had just bought a house in Portland, and I would show up at noon at his house while he was gone and work till six or so. It was good for me to get out of the home. Sometimes it feels more productive to keep office hours someplace. He had a piano and some guitars. Not that I ever wrote anything on the piano. But it felt like I was keeping office hours.
Do your songs tend to arrive in the same way?
MELOY It depends, sometimes an idea will be there just waiting for a melody or a chord progression to communicate that idea. Or sometimes a chord progression or a melody will suggest a tone or a narrative or a character.
Do you use any aids like rhyming dictionaries?
MELOY No, I never have, though I imagine that that would be nice to have. For some reason, when I started writing I thought that was kind of cheating, but I don’t think it’s cheating at all, actually. I’ve just never worked with one. I like to do it organically, which means trying to figure out a rhyme by going through the alphabet and trying out the vowel sound on every letter, which I could probably do a lot more economically and practically if I was using a rhyming dictionary. But I’m stuck in my ways.
The somewhat archaic tone of some of your language, and the kinds of words you’ve been known to use—“parallax,” “dirigible,” “ventricles,” “truncated”—are not necessarily going to show up in a rhyming dictionary.
MELOY Yeah, I also tend to do a lot of slant rhymes, too. I don’t know how much a rhyming dictionary would help with that.
Do you ever use anything like old story collections or newspapers for ideas for songs?
MELOY No, I don’t really seek it out. I just sort of let it happen. It feels more natural that way, I guess.
But the idea for “The Crane Wife” came from a children’s book, right?
MELOY Yeah, I was working at a bookstore when I came across it. It was just happenstance. I happened to be flipping through the book and was really struck with how great the story was and thought it would make a good song, so I tried my hand at it.
It turned out to make three good songs.
MELOY Yeah, it took awhile though.
You’ve written a few long-form songs now with multiple parts. Is that because it takes that long to tell the story?
MELOY Well, with “The Crane Wife” songs, I started out wanting it to be one song, and that was what became “The Crane Wife 2.” But I was never really satisfied with that song on its own. I actually scrapped it and started working on a different version, which became “The Crane Wife 1,” and I thought maybe they would work together. Then I added a third one later on, but that kind of happened on its own.
With “The Island” and “The Tain,” which are other long-form songs, those were deliberately songs where I said, “I want to try creating something that takes a lot of tangents and journeys before getting to the end.” So those are experiments in that form.
Did you conceive of “The Island” as one long piece from the beginning?
MELOY There were actually three separate things that I was working on at the same time—kernels of ideas, a line or two, a melody in each one, and a few chords. And as I was working on all three of them separately, I thought that they could eventually work well together. Then it was a question of stitching them together. And a lot of that was through working with the band and figuring out interesting and elaborate ways of connecting them.
Did the band have a lot of input on that?
MELOY Yeah, I demoed it pretty much the way it is on the record, except for the instrumental bits and transitions in “Landlord’s Daughter,” which were done by Jenny [Conlee] and Chris [Funk]. Everybody worked on that collectively.
How do you present your songs to the band?
MELOY It used to be, when we were rehearsing once a week, that I would just bring the song into rehearsal. But that was bygone days, when we all had day jobs and weren’t touring. Now I demo everything at home, and then give CDs of the songs to everybody and then we work on arrangements together in rehearsals.
Does the shape of a song ever change once the band gets ahold of it?
MELOY A lot of them, when we end up recording them, are just band versions of the demos that I’ve done. But some of them change quite a bit. I’ll leave spaces for instrumental lines, repeating instrumental lines throughout, so that ends up adding a lot of flesh to the bones.
Do you demo them with other instruments?
MELOY No, I just do solo acoustic guitar versions.
Speaking of the guitar, what inspired you to start playing?
MELOY Well, I was a fan of music before I ever jumped into playing music, I think a lot of people are. And I’d taken piano lessons but it didn’t serve any practical purpose to me. There was nothing there to really keep me with it, until I started playing guitar. It happened that my guitar teacher decided that the best thing to do was to show me barre chords first and then go from there. So the first thing I learned on guitar was barre chords. I was in the seventh grade, and I had just picked up Jesus and Mary Chain’s record Psychocandy. So the two kind of went together—taking my first guitar lessons and listening to Psychocandy, which is basically all barre chords—I, IV, and V. And I figured out that I could play some of the songs on the record, which was really exciting to me.
Who were your guitar role models at that point?
MELOY My guitar gods at the time were Bob Mould, from Hüsker Dü, and Johnny Marr, from the Smiths.
What did you like about their playing?
MELOY It had little to do with the technique; mostly their own particular identities seemed really original and interesting and exciting. I liked Bob Mould for his crazy ferocity and intensity and Johnny Marr for the opposite reasons, more of a delicate and melodic kind of playing.
A lot of your songs start with these acoustic guitar figures with open-string drones and hammer-ons. Was that style influenced by anyone?
MELOY A lot of that comes from listening to Robyn Hitchcock’s solo acoustic music. He has a style of his own that I think borrows a lot from the Beatles and the Byrds, and I’ve always liked his guitar phrasing.
There’s a kind of English folk flavor to many of your songs. Has that music played much of a part in your songwriting?
MELOY Yeah, since I was a kid I’ve been into a lot of old Irish and English folksongs. And recently I’ve been listening to a lot of the British folk revival stuff from the ’50s, and ’60s and ’70s. I think that has influenced our direction in recent years. Fairport Convention was my initial delve into that era—Liege and Lief and Unhalfbricking, those two records have really loomed large for me. Also Shirley Collins, who’s kind of the queen mum of the folk revival, as well as lesser-known people like Anne Briggs and Nic Jones. Nic Jones is known for his interpretations of old songs but also for his guitar playing, he’s a phenomenal fingerstylist and he uses all these different tunings.
Do you ever try playing in any alternate tunings?
MELOY Well, recently I’ve gone online and looked at some of the Nic Jones tunings and tried to play with that, but every time I try to write in a nonstandard or an open tuning, I always end up writing the same song. The versatility that a lot of people see in an open tuning, I don’t really recognize as much. I’m happier to navigate standard tuning and discover the things that are locked in there. I don’t understand even where that impulse comes from—“Well, this would sound better if I dropped my B string down to an A.” I would be like, “Wow, isn’t there enough on the fretboard in standard tuning?” So I mostly play in standard or dropped-D. I’m too far along in my own thing—which is to play chords and every once in a while pick some notes here and there, but that’s about it.
I was never a real guitar guy. My guitar gods were mostly songwriters as well. And their guitar work was part of songcraft rather than just raw talent. The stuff I grew up on, college rock like Robyn Hitchcock, almost prided itself on having no guitar solos. Or the guitar solos that were there, like Jesus and Mary Chain guitar solos, were just one really simple spare solo in the middle of the song. Or like Peter Buck of REM—melodic playing serving the purpose of the song rather than standing out so much. That’s been my approach to playing guitar as well.